Civil war in Sudan: What’s happening and why?

CNA Staff, Jun 17, 2024 / 06:00 am

For over a year, the people of Sudan — one of the largest countries in Africa — have suffered under a brutal civil war that has reduced the capital, Khartoum, to a war zone.

Amid the chaos and a complex set of competing political interests, children and the poor have been hit hardest.

Just last week, the United Nations confirmed that 35 children were among those killed in one of the war’s deadliest attacks to date. All told, at least 15,550 people have reportedly been killed in the fighting and some 10 million people have been displaced, many internally.

An overwhelmingly Muslim country, Catholics made up roughly 5% of the population of Sudan before the most recent war and played an important role in schools and education. But now, many missionaries and religious communities have had to flee the country, and parishes, hospitals, and schools have ceased their activities. In Sudan’s neighboring country, South Sudan, the Church maintains a large presence and remains very active in relief efforts.

The papal charity Aid to the Church in Need, which supports persecuted Christians throughout the world, remains active in Sudan. Kinga Schierstaedt, head of ACN’s projects in Sudan, told CNA last week that they know of 10 Catholic priests remaining in the Khartoum area, plus five Salesian sisters. Schierstaedt said Catholics in the country have had to be resourceful and adaptable amid an ever-changing situation.

“For example, the Comboni Missionaries, who had been running a university in Khartoum, moved all teaching online and were thus able to continue teaching their students. In April of this year, the first set of students, who had all fled Khartoum and live currently either within the country or in neighboring countries, were able to complete their exams,” Schierstaedt said.

Schierstaedt said ACN has documented several lootings of churches, convents, and presbyteries amid the violence and destruction.

“At the beginning of the war, many project partners told us that this mainly happened because the attackers assumed that there was gold to be found in the churches and presbyteries. They were therefore mainly after the material possessions. Secondly, churches were also often attacked because the attackers knew that refugees were staying there,” she explained.

“However, we are now increasingly hearing that these acts of destruction are also more and more directed against the Christian faith. Many of the remaining priests, for example, no longer use their own vehicles for fear that they could be taken away from them,” she continued.

What brought Sudan to this point?

Sudan’s current civil war began in April 2023, with warring factions the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and Rapid Support Forces (RSF) led by two rival generals. But before this point, the country had been racked with turmoil for decades with multiple conflicts.

Because of its large size and geographical position, Sudan has long served as a crossroads between the Arab and African worlds. Historically, the country is extremely diverse, with Muslims and people of animist faiths primarily in the north and Christianity prevalent in the south. Religious and cultural differences as well as battles for the country’s vast natural resources, including oil and gold, have long fueled conflicts.

Beginning even before Sudan gained its independence from the British in 1956, the country’s 1955–1972 first civil war ended with the creation of the Southern Sudan Autonomous Region (which would later secede and become South Sudan).

Sudan’s next major conflict, a 22-year second civil war beginning in 1983, was to be even more devastating — it was one of the deadliest conflicts since World War II, with more than 2 million people killed. Instances of famine recorded in the Darfur region in particular shocked the world.

In the midst of that conflict, Omar al Bashir, a hardline Islamist, overthrew the democratically elected government in 1989. He imposed a harsh interpretation of Sharia law on the country and persecuted religious minorities, including Christians. In 2003, he cracked down on rebels in the Darfur region, killing an estimated 300,000 people; fighters also committed numerous atrocities including sexual violence.

Fearing he would be deposed in a coup as he himself had seized power, al Bashir tried to coup-proof himself by creating two militaries, the paramilitary RSF and the “official” SAF, whom he hoped would never collaborate with each other to overthrow him.

Finally, in 2005, a peace agreement was signed with the SPLA, a significant rebel group in South Sudan. The most important part of this agreement, Schierstaedt said, was a referendum on the independence of the south, which passed overwhelmingly and led to the separation of the two states in 2011. South Sudan, despite taking 75% of Sudan’s oil wealth, remains one of the world’s poorest countries, having suffered under its own civil war since 2013.

In 2019, amid popular uprisings against al Bashir, the president was, as he had feared, deposed in a military coup after 30 years in office. The RSF and SAF collaborated to achieve the coup. 

Al Bashir was succeeded by a military council, and in October 2021, a new charter was signed with the aim of creating a constitution, which Sudan has lacked since 2005. 

However, there was another coup and a nationwide state of emergency was declared, though the prime minister ousted in the coup was quickly but briefly reinstated. Fighting then broke out between the SAF and RSF on April 15, 2023, for control of the country. In the absence of any kind of functional civilian government, Sudanese Gen. Abdel Fattah al Burhan of the SAF has de facto ruled the country ever since.

The RSF has captured almost every city in the Darfur region and has been accused of war crimes and ethnic cleansing.

The ordinary citizens of Sudan have suffered years of bombing amid the war, as a recent story from ACI Africa, CNA’s news partner in Africa, explains. Nearly 18 million people across the country are currently experiencing “acute” food insecurity.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both major investors in the Sudanese economy, are seen as players in a proxy war as both countries are sponsoring fighters that serve their interests in the country. The Russian paramilitary mercenary organization The Wagner Group has also been active in the conflict.

“Many international players ask about how many millions of USD are needed to help Sudan in this humanitarian crisis. But they do not ask about how to stop those who ‘sponsor’ the war,” Schierstaedt noted.

(Story continues below)

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Pope Francis has renewed his appeal for peace in Sudan, calling on the country’s warring parties to lay down their weapons and stop the fighting. The SAF recently rejected a U.S. call to return to peace talks with the RSF.

Jonah McKeown is a staff writer and podcast producer for Catholic News Agency. He holds a Master’s Degree from the University of Missouri School of Journalism and has worked as a writer, as a producer for public radio, and as a videographer. He is based in St. Louis.

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Jonah McKeown